Spencer Tiberi, Engineering Manager at Harvard University

Spencer Tiberi, Engineering Manager at Harvard University

Get a bunch of Harvard grads together, and amazing things are bound to happen. That’s certainly true of DEV, the largest student-run company in the world. Affiliated but independent of Harvard, DEV is the web and app development arm of Harvard Student Agencies. The company employs more than 650 undergraduates annually, including DEV’s one and only full-time team member, Chief Helpfulness Officer Spencer Tiberi.

Spencer joins us to talk about DEV as a multi-million dollar non-profit: how the organization is turning profits into scholarships, and what it’s like working in an “almost chaotic” environment. Tune in to learn more about DEV, the nature of their business and where they’re headed next.


Show Notes

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Carl: Hey everybody, and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. Today, we have with us an engineering manager at Harvard, who is also the sole full-time staff member at HSA Dev, which is a student-run web and mobile app development firm. When I first heard about this, I had to find out more. So please welcome to The Bureau Briefing, Spencer Tiberi.

Spencer: Thanks for having me, Carl.

Carl: Hey, thanks for being here, Spencer.

So give everybody a little bit of background on yourself and how you ended up at Harvard.

Spencer: Yeah, that's a weird story actually. So I'm actually a former math and CS teacher from Las Vegas, and I ended up taking coursework on campus here, and then through meeting David Malan, who heads CS 50, Harvard's Intro to CS course, I ended up finding out about this opportunity out here, and basically ran with it. Now I find myself working with undergrads here at Harvard full time, helping them design and build websites and apps. It's kind of insane.

Carl: Okay. So you said you were a math teacher in Vegas?

Spencer: Yeah, math and computer science both. Yeah.

Carl: Okay. And so did you have to leave for any certain reason?

Spencer: From Las Vegas in particular? To escape the heat in the summer ... no. I'm born and raised in Las Vegas.

Carl: OK, awesome.

Spencer: Yeah. We're a rare breed out there, born and raised Las Vegans.

Yeah, no, I taught math and CS out there for a while, and it was a cool gig for a bit, and I felt like I needed a ... I grew up there, I needed a different vibe. [crosstalk 00:01:36].

Carl: Nothing with gambling and chaos theory though?

Spencer: No, thank god.

Carl: Nothing with mathematics or ...

Spencer: From someone with a math and CS background, you'd think I would have been trying to game the system like this guy on Jeopardy is doing. But no, I actually have never gambled in my life, believe it or not.

Carl: Well, growing up in Vegas, I can believe that actually.

Spencer: Yeah.

Carl: Right? Because it's like I grew up in Florida, there are years where I don't go to the beach. Because it's always here.

Spencer: Yeah. Without a doubt. You get over it. You avoid the Strip if you live in Vegas, practically.

Carl: Exactly.

So I will say, and then we'll move on, but is it ... I'm going to get wrong ... McGillicuddy's?

Spencer: I'm not familiar.

Carl: There was a UNLV ... there was a bar we used to go to. Anyway.

Spencer: I love the mention of UNLV, first off. You won me over already by mentioning UNLV. Any podcast where I can say UNLV and Harvard in the same sentence makes me feel good.

Carl: It's pretty magical.

So you get to Harvard.

Spencer: Yeah.

Carl: And tell me about your first experience with HSA Dev. How do you get in there and find out what it is?

Spencer: No, that was a very interesting experience. So I started working here last summer. And in the summer, the engineers and the designers, because we have a full design team as well, all are working full time. So it's just like working almost at a startup kind of feeling, where everyone's really scrappy and everyone's working on projects, organizing sales and getting clients together. So it's a really fun, almost chaotic environment that I loved and just jumped into. So it was really fun, actually, in all honesty. It was different than, obviously teaching, which is very structured, very set up an hour and a half long blocks or such. It was pretty natural. It's fun. I jumped on a few projects myself to get acquainted with their tech stack, and then yeah, it just felt natural.

But then term time comes around and then you don't see everyone full time, and it's a whole different animal. It's an interesting thing.

Carl: So you had no real digital services experience coming into this?

Spencer: Yeah, so coming into this, most of my experience was pet projects of my own and more pedagogical exploits like teaching and running coding academies and such like that.

Carl: Okay, okay. Cool.

And then how big is the team?

Spencer: So the team expands and contracts, depending on the time of year. When I first got here, we were in the 20s, so I want to say we were 25 employees last summer. We've whittled down to this spring to be more like in the teens, high teens on average, all semester. And then going into the summer, we'll be around 12 or 13.

Carl: Okay.

So talk about your clients. How do your clients find you, or do you actively seek certain people to work with?

Spencer: We've been really lucky honestly, in the past, I would say half year, to have a lot of decent inbounds. So a lot of clients have found us through our website, through word of mouth. We have a decent presence at HBS, at Harvard Business School, because we'll do some projects for some students working on their projects over there. Those kinds of things we've done in the past have built up this reputation that we've run off of and been able to have decent inbounds.

But most of our clients typically are entrepreneurial. But we're also starting to find people who are actually a little bit more established and want maybe their brand on the internet more established. We had a client who wanted a whole new website to rebrand his image at the moment, just because he wanted it. And then we're finding clients like that that are a little bit more upmarket that are interested in these kinds of things.

Carl: So when you go out and you talk to prospects, are there any special considerations or legalities around them sharing that they're working with Harvard? Is there some way ... because I can just imagine if somebody is excited ... the Harvard Business Review, all of these things are so heavy in business, people are so excited when new things come out. So I'm just curious, what are the limitations around a client saying, "Well, we're working with Harvard." Do they ever drop the S&A?

Spencer: I feel like people are partially attracted to the brand. I'm not gonna lie. That's definitely the big strength of working with all Harvard undergrads. Everyone on our team, save for me, is a Harvard Undergrad. Every single person is. So that is a huge sell to clients, we've noticed, and that typically is one of the reasons why they like working with us.

That being said, HSA itself, Harvard Student Agencies, is actually a student-run company, independent of Harvard. Which is one of those little interesting areas where we have all Harvard employees, everyone is Harvard affiliated, but the company itself is not actually a body of Harvard. So it's this nice little interesting ground that we get to work.

Fun fact, actually on that note, HSA is also a nonprofit, and all the profits that we make annually go back to Harvard in the form of scholarships for students.

Carl: Now that makes perfect sense, because I was about to ask how does Harvard become okay with the student association using the name and being independent, but if those proceeds are going back into scholarships and that sort of stuff, that makes a lot of sense. 

How long ago did this start?

Spencer: Yeah, so Harvard Student Agencies, HSA for short, started back in 1957.

Carl: Whoa.

Spencer: Yeah, so we're going back. That's the same year, fun fact, UNLV was founded, so we can put those two together, really quickly.

But yeah, so it was founded in 1957. One of the agencies that HSA started with was a cleaning agency where students would drop off their laundry and dry cleaning and it would be cleaned and sent back to their dorm rooms. That actually still runs today. That's one of the agencies that still is around.

But through this time, since 1957, agencies have come and gone, different businesses have started up under the HSA umbrella, and two years ago, Dev started. So that's where we are now.

Carl: And how many projects do you get through, say in a semester?

Spencer: Yeah, it really depends on the project. We've had massive app projects that end up being ... like dating apps that take a lot of time. And then we've had other projects that are like, "Hey, I need a personal website," and those are a little bit quicker, obviously.

So it just depends on technical requirements. But I would say in general, maybe about four or five a semester sounds about right that we get through.

Carl: And the reason I ask it that way is that's kind of ... the nature of this team is going to be semester based, because it's transitory, right?

Spencer: Yeah.

Carl: You have people coming and going, and when you're working on ... especially if you're developing something like say a mobile app or something that's a little heavier on the dev side, that discontinuity in the team, that's gotta be challenging sometimes.

Spencer: Oh absolutely. Without a doubt. That is our biggest pain point for sure, is the fact that at the end of the day, students work here on an annual fiscal year basis, that starts in February and ends the following January 31st. So what ends up happening because of that is you end up naturally having people who have accumulated so much wealth, so much knowledge in a project, but then of course you have to hand it off. So then it becomes an issue of documentation, making sure that knowledge is passed on correctly. But that's just kind of the nature of the beast. It makes term time really interesting, for sure, because you have that aspect of people turning over, but also that everyone's part time during the term as well. So there are little interesting challenges that we deal with, which is kind of fun, in all honesty.

Carl: Outside of your environment, the digital services space as a whole does have a fair amount of turnover and struggles quite a bit with process and documentation continuity. So tell me a little bit about your preferred process, or if you have processes that fit more based on the project itself. What's the philosophy of project management, I guess is what I'm trying to ask.

Spencer: That's actually a good question. It's always evolving, because we're so young, in all honesty. I think in general, documentation is so important. That is something that we continue to learn more and more with every passing week practically, that the more documentation we have, the better. Just writing down not only how projects are formed, how you run projects, how should you hand off projects, but also just general processes from handing design to engineering.

Because another big thing about Dev is that we do in-house design and engineering. So we have processes in place just for getting people in the door, getting people to design, getting people from design to engineering, making sure all those bodies are communicating properly so that clients don't get confused somewhere along the line, and that also engineers know what they're doing relative to design. Just making sure everyone's on the same page.

So I think a big overall philosophy we've found is, A, documentation is huge, but just transparency along the whole process is really super important. As much as communication can happen transparently between all parties involved, the client design and engineering, the better.

Carl: So talk about the initial conversation you have with a prospect when they're coming in. Do you manage all of that? Or are there other people on the team that will handle onboarding of a client?

Spencer: That has changed throughout the past, I would say half year or so. We used to have the managing director would be the person who would be the initial point of contact. And that was mainly because our current managing director was also head of sales before, so she just took it on, because that was the natural fit of what she was good at.

Carl: Gotcha.

Spencer: That is starting to evolve a little bit in the past semester. We now have a new head of sales position that manages that initial onboarding of a client. But what will usually happen is this head of sales will sit down and chat with a client, and also have an engineer or designer, depending on what the client's needs are, on hand as well, so that they can hash out details of what the client wants to make and how feasible it is and what a potential timeline is, a little bit of a range, potentially, cost wise, and just hash these things out before we move forward to design or engineering or what have you.

Carl: And if the client's worked with an external team before, what are some of the, I guess, change points? I almost said warnings, and I was like, that doesn't sound right. But what are some of the conversations you have around, okay, well this is a student team, so we're not going to work overtime? What types of things do you have to share with that prospect when they're coming in so that they don't think this is a, I can call you on a Saturday type environment, or is it? Am I totally wrong?

Spencer: I would say there's two parts to that. The students actually do work on weekends quite a bit, because naturally they get a little bit more time to work on the weekend.

Carl: Absolutely. Yeah.

Spencer: Because they're busy ... during the semester, during term time, they're busy during the week. So weekends aren't terrible for contact to happen. But in general, we are very communicative of the fact that hey, these are students, we may work a little bit slower term time just because we're working with a student's schedule. But at the end of the day, as long as we're upfront and clear about that, and then we just deliver an amazing product, which we take pride in, at the end of the day, clients are very comfortable with it.

I think honestly, the prospect of working with Harvard undergrads excites many people that tend to work with us. So as long as we're straightforward, they've been totally comfortable with that.

Carl: It makes sense. If you get in line for a roller coaster, you have to expect that it's going to be a little thrilling, right?

Spencer: Exactly, yeah.

Carl: If you get in line to work with undergrads, you have to expect that they're in college, they're at university, they're at Harvard, they're going to have other things going on. So don't get in line if you're not going to expect that.

So tell me some of the projects that you've worked on that you're most excited about that are out in the wild now. And if you can share who the client is, that's great. If not, just describe some of those projects that you've gotten out there.

Spencer: Yeah. I can describe one that happened in the fall that we're really proud of, and actually talk to it directly. It's a project called Tackle ALS.

Carl: Okay.

Spencer: And it's a website run by Tim Green, who's a former NFL player who has been diagnosed with ALS, and it was a joint effort between him and Mass General Hospital, MGH. And it's a fundraising website for basically fundraising to tackle ALS, so to speak. Hence the football analogy.

Carl: Right, right.

Spencer: But we actually were able to, on the site ... let me actually look live really quickly, because I can see it.

Carl: Sure.

Spencer: But through the site, they have already raised ... let's see, really quick where it's at now ... $2.89 million in money for ALS research. So the fact that we were able to build a site that ended up raising $2.89 million in funding for this kind of research, it's just amazing. Just to have that kind of impact on top of building cool things, to also have it be something that does great in this world, it's kind of cool. And we're very proud of that project for sure. That's one I can point to off the top of my head.

Carl: You should be. You should be proud of that. That's one of ... in our world, in the digital services world outside of a university, those are the projects that we look at as the care and feeding of our team. Give them something good to do in the world. So to be able to have that and have it recently, that's phenomenal. Congratulations, Spencer. That's really great.

Spencer: Thank you. Congrats to the whole team, man.

Carl: Absolutely.

Spencer: It's a great team of undergrads I work with.

Carl: I have one thing I want to ask you about, that when I was getting ready for the show, I found. Former Strangers on Instagram. So I love this, because you just talked about doing good in the world, and I think this Instagram account is an example of that for you as an individual, where you just take photos with people you don't know and post them on Instagram. Obviously they know you took the photo, because it's a selfie. But talk about that. Where did that idea come from?

Spencer: That was totally random. So the Former Strangers idea, just out of the blue, I had this idea of based off of watching a Ted Talk where a guy was talking about how he did this thing where he was just trying to go out and do crazy things to get rejected, like go to McDonald's, eat a hamburger, and then immediately after eating it in front of the cashier, ask for a hamburger refill.

Carl: That's awesome.

Spencer: Yeah, that was amazing. I'm like, I kind of want to do stuff like that. I'm not sure I'm going to.

But he committed to doing this for multiple days, and I had the idea, well I'm not gonna go that hard, but what if I just met random people by saying, "Hey, can I take a selfie with you," and just saw how successful it was. And surprisingly, the vast majority of people say yes. It's actually kind of funny how comfortable people are with taking selfies with a complete stranger. But it was just a fun project to do, just on a whim, a little pet project.

Carl: I have to say that was inspiring as well. Because I've convinced people that nobody denies the high five.

Spencer: Yeah.

Carl: And I think nobody denies ... well, I'm sure you've had some people who may be self-conscious or have something or don't trust you quite, but if you see people and you're genuinely nice and you want to do something with them, that's what I felt with your Former Strangers account, was just this ... you could see the sincerity of peoples' smiles. So that was awesome. I appreciate you doing that.

Spencer: It's been cool. And it's funny how you get random people. Like I was in Santa Monica, and I just picked some random person, he's from Japan, and you get random people around the world that you randomly took a picture with. Just kind of cool, that you would never have done.

Carl: So what's next for you, Spencer? How long do you think you're going to be there at HSA Dev?

Spencer: That's a very good question. This is a cool place to be, so I really don't have an answer in terms of plans of going anywhere, because it's really awesome working with these undergrads and seeing these projects continue to evolve in front of me and to be able to help undergrads learn and grow through all this project management. It's been really cool.

I can speak to at least what Dev is doing as well in the next year or so. We're looking into all sorts of other things like data science as well, and trying to see if we can integrate that into some of our processes, because we've had clients want to collect data, and we've had clients want to start having people interpret that data. So it's like maybe this is a place we should get into as well. So that's one thing we've been looking at at Dev. So I've been helping look through that kind of market as well.

Carl: That's exciting.

So if it's alright with you, I'm going to put down in my calendar to get back in touch with you like in a year.

Spencer: Oh, well I would be totally down to.

Carl: Yeah. And just see what's happened since then, maybe find out about some of the alumni that you've worked with and what they've gone on to do, that sort of thing. But I'm still fascinated with this idea of a student-run shop.

Spencer: Yeah, it's really fun. Already, speaking of alumni, we have alumni that are working at Palantir next year, Facebook, Twitter, Google. It's like, you name a blue chip and then that's where they are. It's pretty insane, the caliber of people I get to work with, and we all get to work together here at HSA Dev. It's been really cool.

Carl: Well that's great. I appreciate you being on the show today. For everybody listening, thank you so much. And we'll be back next week. Have a good one.

Image via DEV

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